Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Best Country in the World

           In the late eighties I went back to the States for a summer and worked with Mexican migrant labourers in rural North Carolina. I was employed as a volunteer by some radical Mary Knoll Catholics, good people with good intentions who didn’t mind that I wasn’t a believer.

          North Carolina had changed a lot since I left it ten years earlier. During harvest season for crops like salad vegetables and tobacco, the population of small towns virtually doubled. The shelves of the Dunn, NC, Piggly Wiggly were full of tortillas and candles for the Virgin of Guadalupe.

          The idea was to run a free translation service, and also (as a radical side line) to check that the crew bosses were treating the workers fairly in their camps. I was given a pickup truck and a bedroom in a mobile home.  I bought a baseball cap as camouflage.  The locals had a history of extreme racial prejudice and didn’t much like foreigners.
          One of the jobs I inherited was ferrying a few devout migrants to mass on Sunday.  I could sit outside and wait as their sins were washed away and they consumed some communion wafers and wine. Afterwards, I usually took one of the Mexicans to a Sunday barbeque at the nuns’ headquarters.

 One Sunday I had a man named Ruben in tow. We sat at a big table with the jolly sisters and ate fried chicken. They had a guest, a rich young man from Panama, who knew the priest from when he had a church in Central America. He carried a picture of himself kissing the ring of Pope John Paul II, taken when his wealthy family were granted an audience during the visit in which His Holiness refused to bless the radical priests of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. He bragged for twenty minutes or so.
           Then he said, “America is the best country in the world, isn’t it?”

No one replied to this.  Ruben bent his face to his chicken and ignored the question. But the guy kept at it.  He nudged Ruben, and said, “Well, isn’t it?”
           “I don’t think so,” Ruben said.

The Panamanian snorted. “Then why does everyone in Latin America try to come and live here? Tell me that.” He looked around at us, resting his case.
            Ruben put a drumstick carefully on the side of his plate and wiped his mouth. He glanced apologetically at the nuns and said, “We’ve come to get our fucking money back.”

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Soft Logs

I haven’t been to India in over twenty years.  I’m told a lot has changed, as the country now has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies.  I hear that you can buy bottled water in railway stations that hasn’t been drawn from a street tap and re-sealed. I even hear you can buy a condo not far from a spiritual ashram in the middle of nowhere, if you are so inclined.

But I still wonder what life is like at the lower end of the economic scale.  I can remember arriving wide-eyed in the late sixties, backpack stuffed with survival gear and brain stuffed with false expectations. I gawked at nearly everything I saw, and I probably remember all the wrong things.

On my first railway journey, sitting in a window seat in an air-conditioned carriage, I glimpsed a family squatting on a square of rough ground too small for a ping-pong table. There were two parents and two kids. The mother was draped in a dun-coloured rag that may have once been a sari, and the father had on a ragged dhoti cloth.  The kids were naked.  It was raining, and they were trying to stretch a piece of cloth between four sticks driven unsteadily into the ground. I realised in a flash that I was seeing the entire wealth of this small band of people: three pieces of cloth, four sticks and something in a plastic bag. And two pairs of flip flops. I wouldn’t remember this, I’m sure, if the man hadn’t caught my eye as the train crept by. We shared the moment: he was gawking too.

My ideas about world economic justice were too ill-formed at that stage to relate the tableau to any sort of political idea. They would have stayed that way had something not happened to force some sort of reflection into my woolly middle-class head.

I arrived in a medium-sized town after dark.  I was looking for an acquaintance who had found a good, clean hotel that cost no more than fifty US cents. I never wondered why we backpackers were always out to spend as little money as possible before returning to our parents’ suburban homes—that would come later.

I got some garbled directions from a railway porter.  He pointed to a single light atop a building some distance away. I walked across the station approach and a busy street and struck out into what I thought was a wide roadway or square. The darkness was absolute: no street lamps, no comforting glow from nearby windows—nothing. I took a few steps and stumbled over something. I went on and tripped again. The space seemed to be full of what I took to be logs, soft logs.

Until one of them groaned.

Panicked, I lit my butane lighter.  I was standing in the middle of a huge outdoor dormitory.  People were sleeping head to head, toe to toe. They weren't on a camping trip. There were whole families stretched out on a shared piece of cloth.  One or two had little wood-frame charpoys. As my lighter blazed in the dark, eyes opened and heads turned to look at me. Then they closed again.

I stood absolutely still in the dark.  I knew that no matter what I did, I was going to step on people. I was going to put my size 11 shoe into the middle of a small family’s world, tread on a child, interrupt a couple in the act of love. What the hell was I thinking? That’s when the metaphor of my relationship to these people began to dawn.  Even before I stumbled my way through the rest of these prostrate lives to the cheap hotel.

I was literally walking on the poor, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Shoeless in Nairobi

              On our first morning in Kenya, I made myself a promise: the next time I was robbed of everything I owned, I would at least try to be awake while it happened.

          We had been met after midnight by a smiling Kenyan employee of the agency we were going to work for, and driven to Eastleigh, a smart suburb of Nairobi. The driver unlocked the door of a two-storey house on a street that could have been in Northampton or Des Moines. Too tired even to shower away the grime of air travel, we had sunk into floral-patterned twin beds on the second floor. As I lapsed into a kindly coma, I thought how little like Africa this place looked: we had an entire middle-class home to ourselves.  So far, so good.

          As I came to, sometime after a sudden dawn, Barbara was standing at the door of the room, her hand on the knob.

          “Okay, Art, I give up.  What did you do with the key?”

          “What key?  Is the door locked?”

          “Tighter than a tick.”  She twisted the doorknob futilely. I got up slowly and tried it myself.

          “You don’t suppose what’s his name, the driver, locked us in on purpose?” I asked hopefully. Barbara just grunted. She was crossing her legs, needing the bathroom. I wrenched at the handle.  Nothing.

          “I think there was a key in the door when we came in,” I said. I dropped to my knees and peered under the crack at the bottom. Nothing but polished floor.

I went over to the window and looked out. The room let on to a sloping shed roof over what I knew was the kitchen. From there I could see a short drop to the grassy lawn of the manicured compound below. There was no one in sight.

“Go on, then,” said Barbara.

“Go on and what?”

“Yell,” she said.  “Call somebody.”

“What do I say, exactly? ‘Help!’ sounds a little extreme.”

Her expression showed she didn’t mind what words I employed, but that she expected a yell, right now.

“Hey!” I tried. “Yo!” No answer from anybody except a chained boxer dog in a yard across the street, who barked unconvincingly and went back to sleep.

The problem was that we didn’t know anybody except the driver, whose African name had already eluded my memory. I threw on my trousers and put my leg through the window.  If Barbara was impressed, she didn’t let on. I slid cautiously down the slope to the rain gutter and looked over. A man was sitting on a folding chair in the garden next door, reading a leather-bound book. It could have been a Bible.  He was a wiry man in his fifties, with a thick shock of wavy dark hair and a serious expression.

“Good morning,” he said, looking up at me.

“It will be as soon as I get down from here,” I said. The man got to his feet in an unhurried manner.

“We seem to be locked in our room,” I said.

He nodded, and disappeared around the corner.  I sat expectantly until I heard Barbara’s voice inside the room. She was talking to the man, who had unlocked the door from inside the house. I crawled back up the roof and squeezed through the window. The wiry man was alone. Barbara had lit out for the toilet.

        “My name is Howard,” the man said.

I looked around for my shoes.  I must have left them outside the bedroom, alongside my suitcase. I excused myself and went into the hall.  There was nothing there.  Absolutely nothing: no carpet, no table, no mirror, no curtains, no luggage, nothing. I spun around to see Howard leaning against the doorjamb.

“There won’t be anything of yours out there,” he said.

“Who… who would have taken everything?” I asked, unbelievingly. “What happened?”

Howard shrugged. “This area is usually all right,” he said. “You get a few robberies like this out in Karen, but Eastleigh has got a lot of private police on patrol. This is unusual.”

“We’re just lucky, I guess,” I tried to put sarcasm into my voice, but just then caught sight of Barbara’s white face. Her expression said it all.  Whoever it was had gotten all our stuff. Including, it seemed, my shoes.

“They left the kitchen cabinets,” Howard said across the table, where we were having tea in his back yard. Bored detectives in uncomfortable-looking suits had made their perfunctory report and then vanished. My main concern was trying to avoid the large red ants that threatened to crawl up my bare feet.

“They took the refrigerator, of course. It’s as good a way as any to carry off the food. The rest of the furniture will have taken them some time. They probably had to steal a truck, as well.”

“They took furniture, rugs, curtains, the fridge, for God’s sake, and we didn’t wake up?” I was incredulous. “What did they do, drug us, or something?”

Howard’s face got even more sombre. “They locked you in. All foreigners’ houses have internal door locks, for just this kind of thing. They reached in, took the key from inside and locked the door.  If you hadn’t been so tired, they might have awakened you.  That was lucky.”

“Lucky,” I scoffed. “If we’d been lucky, we’d have scared them off.”

Howard didn’t reply.  It was Barbara who got the point first.

“If we’d woken up, Art,” she said, “They would have killed us.

“Welcome to Kenya,” said Howard.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Being Agreeable

                There’s a phase when you’re first learning a foreign language when you almost understand what’s being said to you, but not quite.

                When I was teaching English in Barcelona, I worked with some businessmen who, at first glance, already spoke the language very well. We would sit and discuss the news in a British paper, and I would interrupt when they made a small mistake or used a “detour” to avoid a difficult construction they weren’t sure of.  Things like, “If I had known that by that time I would have been there for six hours…” might come out as “I didn’t know that at that time I’m already going to be there for six hours...”  Minor, but significant.

                Once I recall a man telling me, “Sorry, I slept late.”  He was a bit bleary-eyed, so I checked. “What time did you go to bed?”
              “Three-thirty," he replied. It takes years to notice the difference between what he said and “I went to sleep late.”

One danger is that the learner may partially understand something, with fatal consequences. When I was getting competent in Spanish I once had a barroom conversation with a man called Pepillo, who slurred his speech when fully sober and was basically incomprehensible when drunk. I knew he was talking about his little farm across the river.  Most farmers in that little village talked about their farms, the price of crops and the scarcity of rainfall to the exclusion of anything else. So at every pause, I just said, “Si, si.” It seemed the polite thing to do while I was waiting for unconsciousness to overtake him. We shook hands as he staggered off home.
           The next afternoon I was in the plaza, waiting for the shop to open. Pepillo rode up on his mule and shouted something angrily at me before turning up a side street.  I couldn’t decipher it, so I asked someone what he had said.

“He said you had agreed to buy his farm last night and then didn’t have the courtesy to turn up,” he told me.
          The most dangerous word in a foreign language is “yes”.

I was getting my hair cut yesterday by a bright young man from some Eastern European country or other.  He was very personable; he agreed with everything I said. He responded in the affirmative to every instruction about how I wanted my hair cut: “Yes, yes.”
           It was a pleasant experience. And then I remembered.  After a couple of test sentences, I said, “Would you please slice my ears off with your cutthroat razor, roll them up and push them up my nostrils?”

Smile unwavering, the agreeable young man said, “Yes, yes.”
          Don’t say: “Short back and sides.”

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Why I Never Slept with Jack Kerouac

            The hero of my youth was sitting at a booth in Harry’s Grill, a Southern college town’s version of a bohemian hangout, flanked by a couple of young guys who looked like faces off of wanted posters. The year was 1965. My friend Marshall was there, too, waving me over.

            Ten minutes earlier, Marshall had telephoned me at the weekly newspaper where I was reporter, ad salesman and circulation manager. “Art, I would not lie to you—Jack Kerouac is sitting right here.” He had been hitchhiking when a dusty Pontiac stopped for him and he discovered that he had hit the would-be beat writer’s jackpot.  He found himself on the road with On the Road himself.

            Marshall and I didn’t know it, but we were caught up in events that deserve to be called seminal. As the sixties unrolled around us, social culture was heaving with labour pains. We were drifting on this current without knowing it, like wood chips in a swollen stream.

            Kerouac looked up as I approached the table.  He slid over and patted the seat next to him. “You sit your sweet English ass right here,” he said. I knew that Kerouac was thought to be obsessed with ethnic identity, or—as some would later claim—racism.

            He looked older and heavier than the photos on the back of his books. But I was twenty, and everyone looked older to me. He was dressed in a lumberjack’s flannel shirt and had thick forearms that took up a lot of room at the table. I was tongue-tied. Kerouac did all the talking.  He seemed to know something about everything. Words kept tumbling out of him without spaces in between, like passages from his books. He schmoozed the waitress and engaged in a heart-to-heart with Grits, the cook with the scarred face who had been wounded with a pan of scalding porridge by a waitress who had misunderstood his friendly advances twenty years before. When he turned his attention on me, all I could say was, “Man, you don’t know it, but you got me through high school.”

            My adolescence was spent in Jacksonville, Florida, where “coloured” music, like that of Muddy Waters, was banned from the radio, and “beat” meant what happened to you if you looked slantwise at a redneck at the drive-in. It was made endurable by a thirty-five cent paperback copy of On the Road, which I carried in the hip pocket of my Levis until it decomposed. The fact that people like Kerouac and Neal Cassidy existed at all was enough to keep me going until I was old enough to escape to New York.

            We made a move, and I was surprised to find that he and I were alone. We hit several student bars. In one of them, he suddenly shouted out, “Hey you—hey Negro!” The lone black man in the Tempo Room turned slowly to look at us. He was big, like a football linebacker. I was trying to make myself small.

            “What you want, honky man?” the guy growled.

            “Did you know that one of the famous gunslingers in the Old West was a Negro? A man named Jesse Sublett?” Kerouac went on cheerfully, and signalled the barman to pour a round of drinks.

            “No, I didn’t know that,” said the black guy. He accepted the drink, shook his head, and walked away muttering, but smiling.

Word got around. An emissary from the Chapel Hill literati arrived and invited Kerouac to a private party at the home of the now renowned writer, Russell Banks. It was behind Eben Merritt’s Esso Station on the Pittsboro Road. On the way we stopped at the Quick Mart and bought 28 bottles of Blue Nun Liebfraumilch, warm.

            By the time we arrived, every literary hopeful in the two nearby universities had packed the small frame house. My pretty girlfriend, Nancy, showed up too. The literary set smoked pot in the living room and listened to Dave Van Ronk on the hi-fi.  Nancy and I sat in a little den with Kerouac and his two sidekicks. We each held our own bottle of Blue Nun.

            The literary lions grew impatient. One of them, now a fabled sci-fi author, came in and abruptly asked, “Now that LSD is on the scene, things are different.  Beats are passé. What do you think about that?”

            “What do you think about the Four Horsemen of the North?” said Kerouac. The lion departed. We laughed and drank more Blue Nun.  I couldn’t understand why the local literati seemed to disapprove of him. They appeared to have generational issues, quibbles about relevance. I wanted to shout, “Man this is Jack Kerouac, don’t you get it?” It was as if JFK had risen from the grave and dropped in among us. I sat on one of Jack’s knees and Nancy sat on the other. I was starting to see double, but it seemed to be agreed: Kerouac would stay with us, in our one-room digs that had only one bed.

            He said he was on his way to Massachusetts to see Buffy Sainte-Marie, his old friend. I started to get up, to ask Russell to put some Buffy on the stereo, but was too dizzy. Lions came and went, Blue Nun corks popped.  Then I was over his shoulder in a fireman’s lift on the way to a car, where Nancy crossly nursed me all the way home. Later I heard that he had kept going all night, Blue Nun and all. I had written down Jack’s mother’s phone number in Tampa on a scrap of paper, but couldn’t find it the next day. I never did.